Disney Builds Its Brand with D23 Expo


At the company's first-ever geek fest, attended mostly by young-at-heart grown-ups, devoted fans soak in all things Disney

Comic-book geeks have Comic-Con. Trekkies have annual Star Trek conventions. And now Disney's most devoted fans have D23.

The Disney expo that opened Sept. 10 at the Anaheim Convention Center, across the street from Disneyland, didn't quite assault the senses like those other two fan conventions, where comic-book devotees mingle with scantily clad models and Klingon brigades tromp through the halls. But here was a guy dressed in the purple robe and yellow crown of the Evil Queen from the Disney movie Snow White. And there was another guy decked out in Pinocchio short pants.

There is something special about an 86-year-old company that still inspires the kind of loyalty for wholesome entertainment that was on display in Anaheim—considering the gathering was to run four days and had only a smattering of kids in attendance. As much as anything, D23 (the name refers to Walt's 1923 creation of the company) at least confirms that few companies can promote their brand with the same gusto as Disney.

Walt Disney (DIS) President and CEO Bob Iger opened the show with a speech that was cheered from the moment he stepped onstage. Outside the auditorium some 815,000 feet of convention space was filled with booths that showed off Disney paint, Disney makeup, Disney food, and Disney collectibles, for as far as the eye could see.

"It's your passion for Disney that helps keep the magic alive," said Iger, who started a half-hour late because he said the company was surprised by the last-minute ticket sales and waited to seat latecomers. (The delay might also have had something to do with the security, which included requiring everyone who entered the 4,000-seat auditorium to turn over their cell phones—a move to keep cameras from pirating the 30-minute segment Iger showed of Disney's upcoming animated film The Princess and the Frog.)

Not that this crowd seemed to mind the wait, security hassles, or anything else. These were true believers, and they even cheered the still pictures of Disneyland, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and everything else that flashed on a giant screen while they waited. Even Iger seemed a little surprised when the almost totally adult audience cheered his mention of Radio Disney, the company's teenybopper radio station. "It's a favorite of the young—and I guess some adults as well," Iger said from the stage. The biggest applause seemed to come when Iger mentioned Disney's recently announced $4 billion bid to buy Marvel Entertainment (MRVL), even though some of the blue-haired ladies from Wisconsin may never have held a Spider-Man comic book in their hands or waited in line to see an X-Men movie.

From Avid Watcher to Top Boss

Iger grew up a Disney-phile himself, and he talked about how when he was growing up in New York City, he used to sit in front of the TV "a little closer than my mother might have wanted" on Sunday nights when Uncle Walt warmed up the audience for his weekly Wonderful World of Disney. "I idolized Davy Crockett," said Iger. "Annette was cute, but I really liked Davy. I even had a coonskin cap." Fifty-odd years later, Iger says he is "proud that he can be leading this company that Walt created."

After Iger's speech, all he had to do was walk outside the hall to see the Disney world that he has helped create, enhancing and modernizing old Walt's original vision. A little girl walked around in a Snow White costume, folks lined up for Breyers yogurt at the Disney Food booth, or ambled over to check out the latest Disney paint color at a booth anchored by the Behr paint folks. Hallmark was offering Disney-themed cards and diaries.

Dan Learn, from Marietta, Calif., was the winner of a night's stay at the Disneyland Dream Suite, a lavishly decorated apartment that Disney created in an unused room in the New Orleans section of Disneyland. The apartment had been originally designed for Walt to use as his apartment away from home, but Walt died before the work was done. Learn has been a Disney fan all his life, dating back to the stories his dad told him of working as a street sweeper at the Happiest Place on Earth. Toward the end of Iger's presentation, Learn found the magic envelope under his chair that landed him the Dream Suite. His "heart was pounding" as he made his way to the stage; then he stood for a picture, between Iger, Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle, and, of course, Mickey.

D23 also drew its share of stars who have appeared in Disney movies or TV shows. Robin Williams did his usual shtick when he was awarded a place in Disney's version of the Hall of Fame. Later that day, fans got a chance to hear Tom Bergeron, the host of the ABC show Dancing with the Stars, and Donny Osmond, one of this season's hoofer contestants. ABC sitcom stars Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton were there, as well.

How many folks showed up? Disney isn't saying, other than it was in "the tens of thousands." And with folks paying as much as $37 to get in—$111 for a four-day pass—that's a lot of love.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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